Environment

What are 15-minute cities? The truth behind the conspiracy theory seeping into UK government

15-minute cities have been introduced in Paris and Copenhagen to wide-ranging success.

street in Oxford with loads of bicycles

Many residents in Oxford already cycle or walk to get around. (Image: James Coleman/Unsplash)

You’d think the end of lockdowns would also put an end to the Covid conspiracy theorists intent on finding a fascist-communist coup in every public health briefing. But now the keyboard warriors have settled on a new target: 15-minute cities.

The idea is simple and the name is novel but the concept is nothing new. Reducing short car trips improves health through more exercise and less air pollution, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the long-term, indirect costs around healthcare and the environment across society. What they are not, is an attempt to lock people in their neighbourhoods and only give them snapshots of freedom throughout the day. But there’s just no telling some people.

“15-minute cities are concentration camps,” one Twitter user said, spreading conspiracies about an urban planning concept that has existed for years.

A quick search for the term, also known as “20-minute neighbourhoods”, across Twitter, TikTok or even Google will bring up a number of posts that suggest that it will “restrict” people’s freedom to move around as they please.

Back in February, Tory MP Nick Fletcher, who has previously made headlines for sending anti-trans letters to schools and blaming crime rates on more women appearing in films, called 15-minute cities an “international socialist concept” designed to “take away personal freedoms”.

He later wrote on Twitter that he believes in achieving “net zero and in having a strong local economy” but said “destroying our towns and cities and keeping us prisoners in our communities” through a 15-minute city proposal is “not the way”.

It’s even reached the point where the conspiracy theory is being touted by ministers at the highest level of government. On the main stage at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, transport secretary Mark Harper claimed the Tories will stop the “misuse of so-called 15-minute cities”. He added: “What is sinister is the idea that local councils can decide how often you can go to the shops, and that they ration who uses the road and when, and they police it all with CCTV.”

Even prime minister Rishi Sunak is expected to denounce 15-minute cities in his crucial conference speech amid vague, empty threats of limiting council powers to save lives by imposing 20mph speed zones in England.

“For too long politicians have focused on the short-term decisions with little regard for the long-term impact on hard-working families,” he said.

“We’ve seen this consistently with people’s freedoms on transport. The clampdown on motorists is an attack on the day-to-day lives of most people across the UK who rely on cars to get to work or see their families.

Policies to reduce traffic aren’t an attempt at urban improvement here: they’re the product of an encroaching fascist state, using the “fake” climate crisis to impose lockdowns on everyone. 

So, to clear things up, these are the facts.

What are 15-minute cities?

The concept of 15-minute cities suggests that all services, amenities, and leisure facilities are accessible within a 15-20 minute walk or cycle from a person’s front door. It means cars aren’t needed to go to the shops, get a haircut, or work out, and the overall aim is to improve a sense of community in local areas, reduce pollution and increase health and fitness.

The idea is often credited to a professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Carlos Moreno, who unveiled the model in 2016. It was later implemented and supported by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who made it a major part of her re-election campaign in 2020.

But it actually dates back to the 1980s and has been an important aspect of urban planning ideas over the last two decades, introduced in Melbourne, Copenhagen, Utrecht, and Portland under the term “20-minute neighbourhood”.

After Covid-19 lockdowns forced a majority of people to work from home and explore what their local area had to offer, many people have welcomed 15-minute cities.

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Where are 15-minute cities being considered?

A number of UK councils have put forward plans to develop 15-minute cities, including Oxford, Sheffield, Bristol and Canterbury, while planning reforms in Scotland approved in January also propose 20-minute neighbourhoods to tackle the climate crisis and reach net-zero emissions. 

But the plans in Oxford, in particular, have been plagued with misinformation. Katie Hopkins, the former reality TV star banned from many social media platforms for spreading hate speech and disinformation, is one of a number of people claiming new plans will give people just “15 minutes of freedom”. 

Following a consultation with 5,000 residents and businesses across Oxford in 2022, the council will trial traffic filters similar to London’s congestion zone. From 2024, drivers will be encouraged to use the ring road to get across town rather than drive through it directly, and will have permits to drive freely through their own neighbourhoods but apply for permits to other areas.. 

A statement released by Oxford City Council said: “The misinformation online has linked the traffic filters to the 15-minute neighbourhoods proposal in the city council’s Local Plan 2040, suggesting that the traffic filters will be used to confine people to their local area. This is not true.”

Similarly, Canterbury City Council plans to ask residents to drive along a new bypass instead of through other neighbourhoods, with fines imposed if drivers use the smaller roads connecting the five districts. 

Residents will also be encouraged to use public transport, walk or cycle instead of driving.

Though these plans to reduce traffic would be beneficial to the idea of a 15-minute city, they are not the same.

Why are people concerned about 15-minute cities?

The concept of 15-minute cities has been successfully introduced in other cities and areas across the world.

According to Wired, support for car reduction measures tend to “increase over time” and cities like Copenhagen, which has set up neighbourhoods where amenities are located within a 15-minute walking distance, is considered one of the best places to live in the world.

But there appears to be some fear-mongering about what exactly a 15-minute city entails and how it would work.

One of the key opposing claims is that having everything within a 15-minute walk or cycle distance is an attempt to stop people from using their cars at all or from going anywhere further than 15 minutes away. 

Hirra Khan Adeogun, head of car-free cities at climate charity Possible, previously told the Big Issue: “When we talk about a car-free city, we don’t mean one where there are no cars at all. What we mean is a city that is free of the dangers of cars, as well as emissions and pollution that comes from mass car dominance.”

Yet some social media users still falsely claim 15-minute cities are restricting freedom and forcing people to only stay within their “designated zones”, suggesting it is a “communist conspiracy” and comparing the idea to the “ghettos” created by Nazi Germany in the 1940s.

Others suggest the idea is simply an underhanded way of imposing “climate lockdowns”, using language popularised during the Covid-19 pandemic in criticising the regulations imposed by the government for public health purposes. 

There is no evidence that any of these claims are true, so let’s debunk a few.

15-minute cities will not confine people to their local area

The idea of 15-minute cities is designed to ensure everything anyone might need on a day-to-day basis is located near home and to have ample road and public transport networks for anyone who needs to go further.

Policy documents for Oxford, Canterbury, and Scotland’s plans do not contain any details about restricting people to their local areas.

A Scottish Government spokesperson previously told Reuters that these claims “are completely inaccurate and untrue”.

In response to “inaccurate information” being circulated about Oxford, the city council published a statement to say the current traffic filter plans will not be used “to confine people to their local area”.

“The 15-minute neighbourhoods proposal aims to ensure that every resident has all the essentials (shops, healthcare, parks) within a 15-minute walk of their home. They aim to support and add services, not restrict them,” the statement said.

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People can travel wherever they want to using cars

Some people online have claimed that, in 15-minute cities, leaving home or driving in general will only be possible with express permission from local authorities. But there is no evidence to support this.

Local authorities have been at pains to make clear that residents will be able to travel freely throughout their city by walking, cycling, or taking public transport, and the policies instead seek to reduce reliance on driving for basic needs.

Stephen Edwards, chief executive of Living Streets, a charity aiming to achieve a better walking environment for everyone, told the Big Issue: “Creating safe, accessible and well-connected places will enable more of us to choose to walk or wheel our everyday journeys – helping to boost health, support local businesses and connect us to our local communities.”

Oxford City Council’s statement also said no resident would need “permission” to travel across the city: “Under the traffic filters, residents will still be able to drive to every part of the city at any time – but in the future, at the times when the filters are operating, you may need to take a different route (e.g. using the ring road) if you want to travel by car.”

Exemptions to fines would be provided to “carers, blue badge holders, businesses, and emergency services”.

Under the trial, only six roads in Oxford are proposed to have traffic filters while many other roads will continue to be accessible to drivers at any time of the day throughout the year – those who wish to drive elsewhere for their daily shop or to visit a friend will be able to.

Do you have lived experience or burning opinions to share about this story? We want to hear from you. And we want to share your views with more people. Get in touch and tell us more.

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